Keys to the Past


Greenwell, William

William Greenwell in his professional life was a vicar, canon and librarian of Durham Cathedral. He was one of the foremost antiquarians of the country. He was born at Lanchester (County Durham) in March 1820AD, studied law initially and then theology at Durham University. Greenwell was appointed to various northern parishes after being ordained in 1844AD. After 1854AD, he was exclusively professionally based at Durham. However, as an antiquarian he directed many excavations, collected many hundreds of artefacts, transcribed and edited many important documents, (such as Boldon Book), and Hatfield's Survey), and produced many catalogues.

Greenwell is best known for the excavation of many barrows and cairns throughout Britain. He made annual digging seasons wherever he went in the summer from 1864AD. Many of these he published in British Barrows (1877) - where some 260 plus barrows are recorded, (though only a fraction of these are in the northeast). Greenwell also published elsewhere his own excavations - though dug nor published as we might see fit today. (Indeed re-excavation has taken place of some sites finding artefacts and structures, such as cists, missed by Greenwell's partial excavations. An example is the Blawearie cairn, near Old Bewick, Northumberland).

Greenwell was an avid collector of anything historical - his own collection of Greek coins, (sold for £10, 000 in 1901AD), prehistoric metalwork and moulds, flints and the skulls from his own excavations. Greenwell acquired his material through his own excavations, auctions, friends and correspondents - including the material from the Viking cist at Cambois, Northumberland. Many of the national museums, such as The British Museum based in London, have collections bought, or derived, from Greenwell. His Bronze Age metalwork was of 2, 000 plus items.

He was responsible for the editing and cataloguing the contents of the Durham cathedral library. These included the Medieval charters and surveys of the Bishops, their seals and sculptured stones there. This necessitated taking pieces from churches being restored and casts where the materials could not be removed. In the case of the Bewcastle, (Cumbria) Anglo-Saxon cross it was stated that no road surveyor could have done worse! after Greenwell's contractor caused severe damage.

Greenwell widely on a variety of topics - these included prehistoric barrows, his Greek coin collection, Bronze Age metal and stone weaponry, parish registers, inscribed stones of Roman and Anglo-Saxon date, Scandinavian brooches, The Durham collections, the architecture of castles and churches, types of armour and prehistoric flint mines. He was honoured by an honorary degree, local and national societies, such as Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries. Greenwell was also active as a Justice of the Peace, (notably criticising motorcyclists), and a keen fly fisherman - where there is a fly called "Greenwell's Glory" which he developed.

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